The Birth of Spooky

How they put the “A” in the AC-47.

With surgical precision, the AC-130H pinpointed targets, even enemy soldiers who had infiltrated friendly positions. (Air Force Magazine)
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Terry got approval for a live-fire test at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. Since the program wasn’t officially funded, he had to use his personal American Express card to purchase tools and hardware. Then he flew down in the C-131 with a small team.

At Eglin Terry recruited Lieutenant Ralph Kimberlin, the project officer for a new Gatling-type 7.62-mm mini-gun, the SUU-11A, which fired 6,000 rounds a minute. The two men mounted the gun on the C-131, aimed it out the cargo door, wired the trigger to the pilot’s wheel, then had Ken Cobb, another engineer at Eglin, work out ballistic trajectories and firing tables for the system so the guns could be fired accurately. Cobb remembers Terry as “a very strong and determined leader, free spirited and sort of an adventurer.”

The modification and calculations complete, Terry and his team headed for a raft target in the Gulf of Mexico. Terry orbited the target and began to blaze away, and Kimberlin remembers that “he frothed up the water all over the target while the cameraman took pictures, and we realized that the airplane could sit at 3,000 feet and shoot down at troops out of small arms range.

We began to think this was a pretty good idea.”

The next day Terry flew a demonstration with the commander of First Combat Applications Group, who came away wildly enthusiastic. Terry returned to Wright-Patterson and for a test bed was given a C-47, which proved an ideal platform: There were plenty of C-47s in Vietnam; they could carry large quantities of ammunition and flares, they could loiter a long time, and they could be converted back to a regular cargo aircraft if needed. The airplane had one disadvantage—it appeared vulnerable—but Terry knew C-47s had been operating for years as flare ships in Vietnam without undue losses and was not concerned.

A few months later, Terry got permission to take his findings and photos directly to Air Force Chief of Staff General Curtis LeMay at the Pentagon. Terry was planning to “talk about how effective the system would be attacking VC forces in the open before they got away” until he heard the intelligence briefing that immediately preceded him, and he decided on a new strategy. “The briefer was talking about a Viet Cong mortar and sapper attack on Tan Son Nhat [air base] that destroyed a lot of A-1s and killed a bunch of our people,” Terry remembers. “LeMay had chewed through about three cigars listening to that briefing, so when it was our turn I told the guy I had brought with me not to show any surprise no matter what I said.

“I opened with, ‘General LeMay, I’m here to brief you on a new concept for air base defense in Vietnam!’ That got LeMay’s attention. He listened and asked the three-stars what they thought—none liked it, except one general who said, ‘General, this may revolutionize air warfare.’ LeMay asked how many mini-guns there were. We told him there were nine prototypes and he said, ‘Okay, take them to Vietnam and try it out.’ We were on our way.”

But unbeknownst to Terry, the program had powerful enemies in the Air Force who were apoplectic about using cargo aircraft for fire support, in part because of their rivalry with the Army. Air Force records show one message in which a four-star general complained to LeMay that the use of C-47s as gunships “was contrary to the Air Force’s continuous and vigorous opposition to the Army equipping helicopters for fire control missions…[and] is tantamount to USAF approval for the use of all the Army’s transport aircraft including helicopters for the same role.” This message of opposition was also sent to the Air Force leadership in Vietnam.

Terry and his team landed in South Vietnam on December 2, 1964. He remembers, “We arrived at Tan Son Nhat and were met by a force of armed air police. They told us...we were not to talk to anyone and we and our equipment would be on the next plane back to the U.S.”

But opposition to Terry’s proposal did not sit well in Washington. In a curt reply to the general who sent the message, Vice Chief of Staff John P. McConnell (by then Chief of Staff designate; LeMay was to retire in a few months) told the general, “your concern is appreciated...[but] we cannot overlook or deny any weapon which will enhance our capability in this area of operation...[and] it is certainly in the Air Force interests to run the program rather than sit on the sideline commenting.”

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